My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Throughout this wonderful series featuring the humane and incorruptible Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, one of the recurring themes has been how art is made and how the lives of the artists affect their art. This theme has been explored most closely through the stories of the residents of the little village of Three Pines in Quebec, where many of Gamache's cases have taken him over the years. Long-time readers of the series, like myself, tend to think of those residents as old and treasured friends for, through his long association with them, that is what they have become for Gamache.
The Chief Inspector's recent cases, in addition to murder investigations, have been a battle against a dark corruption eating away at his beloved police force from within. The last book, How the Light Gets In detailed the climax of that battle, an effort which almost killed Gamache and tested the strength of his relationship with his beloved but drug-addicted junior partner, Jean-Guy Beauvoir. At the end of that book, we saw Beauvoir fighting his addiction and finally marrying the love of his life, Gamache's daughter Annie.
The Long Way Home finds Armand and Reine-Marie Gamache in their new home in Three Pines. Gamache has retired from the police force, leaving it in the very capable hands of his protege, Isabel Lacoste. After the traumatic events of the last few years, he is physically and emotionally spent and his first order of business in retirement is to heal himself. What better place to do that than this idyllic Quebec village, so remote that it does not even appear on maps?
He enjoys his quiet days, his walks with his dog Henri, and the companionship of his friends. But mysteries have a way of finding the former Chief Inspector, even in retirement, even in remote Three Pines.
The mystery here is a domestic one. A year earlier, local artist Clara Morrow had finally gotten fed up with husband Peter's negativity, jealousy, and lack of support regarding her work. Peter was an artist, also, and was used to being the acclaimed one in the family, but then Clara was "discovered" and became the rage of the country's art world. Peter couldn't take it and tried to sabotage her. Clara kicked him out, but they still loved each other and they made a pact to get together again in one year to assess their relationship and decide how to proceed.
The anniversary date comes and Clara prepares for their meet. She buys food and wine for their dinner, but Peter never shows up and there is no word from him. Puzzled, hurt, and angry, Clara doesn't know what to think but then realizes that the meticulously organized Peter would not simply not have shown up. She becomes convinced that something is wrong and that she must find him. She asks for Gamache's help.
A preliminary investigation discovers that Peter has spent the last year traveling in Europe, Scotland, and finally back to Quebec. His journey seems to have given him a new perspective on his art, which had always been coolly intellectual, unemotional, rendered in non-colors - gray, white, black. Now he appears to be painting in a very emotional style, allowing his feelings, in brilliant colors, to spill all over his canvases. But what does that mean? Has he suffered a breakdown? Has he lost his true self? Or found it?
The investigative "team," including Gamache, Jean-Guy, Clara and her friend, Myrna the Three Pines bookstore owner, track Peter to a remote location up the St. Lawrence River. In her introduction to the book, Louise Penny wrote that The Odyssey and Conrad's Heart of Darkness were inspirations for this work. One can see those influences in the dark and dramatic conclusion, there in a remote village on the ancient river, to Clara's search for her wayward husband.
As with nearly all of Penny's works, this one benefits from meticulous plotting and from the adherence to her overarching theme which is the quest for the salvation of a man - an artist - who has lost himself to the negative emotions of envy and self-hate. In the end, we are reminded, with Gamache, of the words of the old spiritual "There is a Balm in Gilead." They, too, have been a recurring theme of the novel and they get the last words.
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